Friday, September 5, 2008

Farewell, Daunte

After a nine-year NFL career, three Pro Bowls, over 20,000 passing yards and 175 combined rushing/receiving touchdowns, former Vikings QB Daunte Culpepper called it quits yesterday at the age of 31. Citing that he was "not given a fair chance to come in and compete for a job" (more on that later), Culpepper closed the book on an up-and-down career that brought him within breathing distance of the NFL's ultimate goal but also laid him low on more than one occasion.

Following the Vikings' stupendous 1998 15-1 season, team officials opted to trade quarterback Brad Johnson to the Washington Redskins, choosing to rely on Randall Cunningham to lead the team in 1999. The Redskins, having lost Trent Green to free agency and cut loose current Vikings QB Gus Frerotte, were happy to trade a number of draft picks, including their first-rounder, to the Vikings. With that pick, the #11 selection overall, the Vikings drafted Culpepper out of Central Florida college, a move regarded as curious considering the team had both Cunningham and the recently signed Jeff George at the position.

Cunningham got off to a slow start in 1999 and was replaced by George in week six. The rookie Culpepper saw only three snaps his first season, rushing for six yards on three carries and not throwing a pass. Despite his good season, the team elected to let George leave via free agency (to the Redskins, where he would back up Johnson) and went with the unpolished but talented Culpepper as their starting quarterback in 2000. With an offensive cast that included Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, and star offensive linemen Matt Birk, Todd Steussie, and Korey Stringer, Culpepper was set up to succeed from day one.

And succeed he did. Culpepper accounted for all three Vikings touchdowns -- all via the rush -- in the team's 30-27 opening-day win over the Chicago Bears. His first TD pass (to Randy Moss, naturally) came next week in a 13-7 win over the Dolphins. By the end of the season, Culpepper had been firmly established as the Vikings' starter, erasing any doubts with 40 touchdowns (33 passing, 7 rushing), 3,937 passing and 470 rushing yards, and a 98.0 passer rating. After an 11-2 start, however, the team lost its last three regular-season games and, after winning its playoff opener against New Orleans, was crushed in the NFC Championship Game, a 41-0 drubbing by the New York Giants.

Still, hopes were high for Culpepper and the Vikings going into 2001, but the successes of 2000 were not to be repeated. Culpepper was hurt in the 11th game of the season and didn't play again that year, amassing only 14 passing TDs versus 13 interceptions as the team stumbled to a 5-11 record that spelled the end of Green's 10-year coaching tenure with the team. The next season was almost as bad, with Culpepper throwing 23 interceptions versus only 18 touchdown passes and even being benched during a game against the New York Giants in favor of the unremarkable Todd Bouman. The team went 6-10 in head coach Mike Tice's first season.

2003 was a resurgent year for Culpepper and, to some extent, the Vikings. Despite missing two games with injuries, Culpepper rebounded with 25 TDs against 11 interceptions, leading the team to a 9-7 record and putting them within seconds of making the playoffs before this happened. (Video link has been removed, but here's a heart-wrenchingly close enough version.)

Then came the 2004 season. In what still must go down as one of the best seasons ever by a quarterback, Culpepper put up numbers that looked like he was playing a video game. 4,717 and 39 TDs passing. 69.2% completion percentage. Nearly 300 yards per game. 406 yards and 2 TDs rushing. Culpepper's combined 5,123 passing/rushing yards are still an NFL single-season record, and his passer rating of 110.9 ranks fifth all time on the single-season list.

Despite that success, there were three things amiss with the 2004 season. First, Culpepper's amazing season was overshadowed by Peyton Manning's 2004 season that saw throw 49 TD passes, breaking Dan Marino's single-season record (surpassed in 2007 by Tom Brady). Second, the Vikings' defense in 2004 was among the worst in the league, and the team managed only an 8-8 record, just barely squeezing into the playoffs and being knocked out in the second round by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Third, and perhaps the most troubling long-term problem with the season was the seeming decline of Randy Moss. Culpepper's running buddy since taking over the reigns as Vikings' QB in 2000, Moss missed several games with an injury in 2004 and was used only as a decoy in others, limiting him to a career-worst (at the time) 49 catches for 767 yards, despite hauling in 13 touchdowns. His attitude, never great, was called into question even more when he left the field with two seconds remaining in the Vikings' regular-season finale against the Redskins and when he offended Joe Buck's sensitivities by faux-mooning the Green Bay Packers' fans during the playoffs. As a result, the Vikings shipped Moss off the Raiders in the off-season, breaking up the best QB/WR tandem in team history.

Still, Culpepper had looked reasonably well in the games Moss missed in 2004, so fans were hopeful he could continue his free-slinging ways in 2005. To the heartbreak of every fantasy football fan who picked him in the first round of drafts in 2005, Culpepper completely bombed, heaving 12 interceptions (versus 6 touchdowns) in the first seven games of the season. In a game against Carolina (which I had actually been debating attending, since the Panthers' stadium is about 15 miles from my home and my employer at the time made NFL merchandise, thus giving me an avenue into the occasional home Panthers game), cornerback Chris Gamble tackled Culpepper low on a run at the end of the first quarter. The hit damaged three of the four ligaments -- the ACL, PCL, and MCL -- in Culpepper's knee and he missed the remainder of the season while recuperating from surgery.

Then things got weird. Before the injury, Culpepper was fingered in the Love Boat scandal, though it was generally accepted that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing. In the offseason, he fired his agent, choosing to represent himself and became known for firing off random e-mails to the media and asking for his release or trade. New head coach Brad Childress likened his limited experience with Culpepper to his dealings with Terrell Owens while both were in Philadelphia in that all conversations revolved around what the player could get from the team and not what the player could do for the team.

With Brad Johnson back in purple and Culpepper both coming off an awful year and a serious knee injury and apparently unwilling to play without a renegotiated contract, the team shipped him off to Miami for a second-round draft pick. He began the season as the Dolphins' starter but, four games in, it was decided that his knee wasn't fully healed from his 2005 injury and he was shelved in favor of Joey Harrington. In 2007, he resurfaced with the Oakland Raiders and, in probably his best post-Vikings game, accounted for all five of the Raiders' touchdowns (three rushing, two passing) in a 35-17 win over his former team, the Dolphins. On Nov. 18, he got the start against his original franchise and almost rallied the Raiders to a win in the Metrodome against the Vikings before falling 29-22. He started one more game for the Raiders, a 20-17 win over Kansas City, in what now stands as his final NFL action.

Since his spectacular 2004 season, Culpepper has thrown 536 NFL passes, about the equivalent of a full season. Those passes have yielded 3,824 yards, 13 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. In addition, Culpepper has rushed for 207 yards on 54 carries (3.8 average) and his passer rating is a mediocre 75.3. But the most troublesome statistic has to be his sack rate during those three years. Culpepper had been dropped an amazing 73 times in those three years, almost exactly 12.0% of the time. And you can't just blame that on a poor offensive line; his quarterback teammates during those three years have significantly lower sack rates. Likewise, while his knee injury certainly damaged his mobility and may have contributed some to his sack totals, realize that about 40% of his dropbacks over that span came with the Vikings in 2005 -- in other words, before he suffered his knee injury. he had a 12.6% sack rate in that season.

In his letter announcing his retirement, Culpepper that, despite the preseason's usual quarterback injuries, he was not given a "fair chance" to compete for a job, despite the fact that he was offered short-term deals from both the Packers and the Steelers. It seems clear, both from his letter and his actions of the past few months that Culpepper didn't just want a job, but a starting job. And, based on his amazing 2004 season -- now four years' distant -- he believed himself fully qualified for such a job and scoffed at lesser offers.

Unfortunately, reality never sunk in for Culpepper, even if it did for the general managers of the 32 teams in the league. He stated in his letter that "the league did not share any of the optimism about me as an unrestricted free agent that I expected" and that "there seemed to be a unified message from teams that I was not welcome to compete for one of the many jobs that were available at the quarterback position," despite his receiving the two job offers mentioned above. A quarterback who, over his last three seasons, has been sacked about once every eight times he drops back and who has posted passer ratings of 72, 77, and 78, isn't going to be the premier job offers, but this never seemed to occur to Culpepper.

What I think it comes down to is that Culpepper never wanted an opportunity to play; he wanted an opportunity to start, and (rightfully) no team was willing to give him that opportunity. He still believed himself to be a starting quarterback in the NFL and, while every player should have that goal, sometimes you have to accept the reality of your situation and take what's offered. He goes on in his letter to talk about how, since becoming his own agent, he's "seen" that the NFL is more a business than a passion for most people, which should be news to nobody but him. Perhaps he felt that, because he was such a great guy, teams should rush out to sign him, regardless of his actual ability to compete on the field. Yes, Daunte, the NFL is about having power and controlling that power. If Tom Brady told the Patriots he wanted a yacht for Christmas, they'd get him a yacht because he has bargaining power. You, on the other hand, have none. Pity you could never come to grips with that. You were still fun to watch.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Maybe New England will coax him out of retirement.